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« Is Stupid Sexy? | Main | Who Needs TV? »

August 16, 2006

A Boy and His Sports Car

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My son was never a car guy, and when he was college-age preferred pickup trucks to sports cars.

Where did I go wrong?

When I was a teenager I would have pawned my grandmother's jewels (if she had any) for a sports car. Hell, I would have done that clear up to age 30.

Maybe I'm being too harsh with myself regarding my son's incomprehensible behavior. I'll do the proper 21st Century thing and place the blame someplace else -- on generational factors, let's say.

And in my generation (and locale, socioeconomic group, etc., etc.) sports cars were it.

I reached puberty and serious car-consciousness in the early 1950s, right about the time British sports cars began to appear on Seattle streets in noticeable numbers. In those days there was a considerable gap between family cars and sports cars. The former were large and didn't handle well, though models powered by V-8 engines had good acceleration. Sports cars were mostly small and nimble and tended to lack raw power (though their low weight contributed to sprightly performance).

Sports cars also tended to be roadsters or convertibles (both have folding tops, but roadsters lack roll-up side windows). This meant they were subject to body-shake on bumpy roads and often leaked when driven in rain. One had to be "dedicated" (read: masochist) to be a sports car owner in the Pacific Northwest in those days.

Nowadays, sports cars tend to be large and powerful. Next time you find yourself behind a top-of-the-line Porsche, Jaguar, Aston-Martin or Ferrari, check out how wide they are -- as wide or wider than most sedans or SUVs. Often as not they have a metal top. And sedans no longer can be expected to have lousy handling, as most any BMW owner will attest.

The one constant factor over time is that desirable sports cars tend to be fairly costly -- to the point of being unaffordable to the likes of me.

When I was in college I couldn't afford any car, envying fraternity brothers who had sports cars. As a grad student I had an income, buy not enough to afford a new sports car. I remember staring at Road & Track road tests, eyeing the prices, and calculating and recalculated my laughable monthly disposable income. I flat-out couldn't afford a sports car. Not a new one anyway, and I didn't want to run the risk of buying a (likely abused) used one.

Eventually I got a full-time job and began sports car shopping. Before continuing the story, let's pause for some pictures.

Gallery

Jaguar XK120 - 1948.jpg
Jaguar XK120 - 1948.
Unafordable to all pimply-faced Fifties boys save the trust fund set, the XK120 was sex personified. Even the young Marilyn Monroe would find this Jag tough competition.

MG TD - 1950.jpg
MG TD - 1950.
This was the first post-war British sports car to sell in large numbers in the USA.

Triumph TR2.jpg
Triumph TR2.
The Triumph was more potent and expensive than the MG, but had the defect of terminal ugliness.

Austin Healy 3000.jpg
Austin Healy 3000.
Priced between the TR and the Jag, the Healy offered fine style and sportiness.

MG B.jpg
MG B.
The MG B entered production in the early 60s and was still in production in 1971 when I was ready to buy. I gave it a pass because it was obsolescent and perhaps unreliable.

Fiat 124 Spider.jpg
Fiat 124 Spider.
I considered the coupe version of the 124, but its ergonomics were awful.

Porsche 914.jpg
Porsche 914.
So I bought a Porsche 914. Mine had the same color as the one shown, but it was the bottom-of-the-line model and lacked the chrome bumper and vinyl covering on the roll-bar. 914s had a fiberglass top that unclipped and could be stowed under the rear trunk lid.

As best I recall, in 1971 the sports cars near my price-point were the MG B, the Fiat 124 and the Porsche 914; others were too puny or too expensive. I ruled out the MG because that model was obsolescent and had a reputation for being unreliable.

I test-drove the coupe version of the Fiat, which led me to reject it too. The instrument panel had a lot of tacked-on controls, if memory serves. Worse, the ergonomics were awful. The steering wheel required that my arms be stretched out to the point where my elbows locked, while the pedals were so close that my knees were uncomfortably bent. An ape would have found it a perfect driving position.

So I gladly bought the Porsche. At last I owned a sports car!!

The experience proved disappointing.

At first, shifting gears required a lot of muscle; I had a sore right arm for the first several weeks I owned the car. When it was about a year old I got rear-ended and after the repair the trunk wasn't quite waterproof. The windshield got hit by a rock near Buffalo and the replacement wasn't properly installed -- the chrome strip kept popping loose at the lower corners.

Driving in the Catskills one winter day I hit an icy spot and the car started oscillating (the 914 was a "mid engine" car, but had a rear weight bias). I couldn't break the cycle and the car eventually turned rear to the fore and slid off the road to the right. This was good, because an uncontrolled slide to the left would have put me in the path of oncoming traffic. After that, I wasn't keen on winter driving in the thing.

Finally, when the 914 was about three years old, I discovered that its windshield defogger barely worked, and winter was coming on. This was because the 914 had a Volkswagen air-cooled engine and no radiator. Heating and defogging were done via a cuff over part of the exhaust system through which a fan circulated air to be warmed. After three upstate New York winters, the cuff had rusted through in places and little warm air was coming through the system.

At that point, I'd had enough and traded the 914 in for a more winter-ready Volkswagen Dasher (which had its own set of defects, it turned out). The irony is that within weeks of buying the Dasher, I got a job in Olympia, Washington where mild winters are the rule.

The upside?

Even though the 914 had awkward styling, it was pretty neat looking in its day. It had about a 600-mile cruising range on a full tank of gas because the tank was large to deal with the needs of a six-cylinder version that was only marketed for a year or two. Handling was up to Porsche snuff. I really enjoyed driving it when it was new (aside from the sore arm).

Better yet, it cured me of my sports car mania; I had been there and done it. Now I'm quite content with a sedan such as my Chrysler 300 as I pointed out here.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at August 16, 2006




Comments

I once had a 59 Triumph. Great car, really fun to drive. But a pain in the ass to keep it running.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 16, 2006 7:04 PM



I'm a Taurus guy these days myself (The Wife and I love renting Tauruses). But back in the day the cars you're writing about here were the stuff of my dreams. One day, I just knew it, I'd own a Jag XKE. Hasn't happened, but maybe that's for the better.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 16, 2006 7:33 PM



not a sports car, but my son just bought a 64 Thunderbird convertible, baby blue, in pretty good condition. I don't get the car thing, but he is in heaven, and I have to admit that it is the ultimate babe magnet. The X says that every 21-year-old guy should have one . . . I'm sure he'll have fun with it.

Posted by: missgrundy on August 16, 2006 7:47 PM



I'm more of a pickup person myself (1990 Ford Ranger S) but in 1957, I was the only one of our little quartet of high school grads to go to college. One had a baby, one went on a mission, and one bought a T-bird. In summer I was drafted to go with the T-bird driver because I was considered a safe and stable person who would keep the others from getting in trouble. I failed in that mission. But we had a great time.

In about 1980 my mother bought a peagreen T-bird exactly like the one my high school friend had. She loved it and drove it for many years. She died, aged 89, wishing she hadn't sold her T-bird.

The fourth year I taught in Browning, Montana, (that would be about 1965, the other English teacher (there were only 2 of us) drove a Jaguar. It's main drawback was that if he drove it through a puddle, he had to get under the hood and dry something or other with a rag and some ether spray. Not entirely practical. In snow, forget it. But he was a sort of Cary Grant type and loved his Jag for the image of it all.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 16, 2006 10:41 PM



Young men should ride motorbikes.

Posted by: dearieme on August 17, 2006 5:54 AM



dearieme, perhaps young men not wanting to develop into older men should. Lost quite a few of my high school chums doing the motorized 2 wheel thing. There but for the grace of.....

Posted by: DarkoV on August 17, 2006 8:16 AM



Better motorbikes than young women.

Posted by: ricpic on August 17, 2006 8:36 AM



I only watched the awful movie "Love Story" to the end because of the lovely little MGTD.

Posted by: Bradamante on August 17, 2006 9:06 AM



The closest I ever got to a sports car (and I figure these don't really qualify) was a Mustang convertible and a Mazda Miata. Both had that rear-end thing, and I spun both out on the highway--in the Miata, I spun across the divide and into oncoming interstate traffic. I was just damn lucky none was oncoming before I could pull back into the grassy divide. I never felt safe in the Miata again and traded it for an SUV. Great-looking, fun to have a convertible, but I just wasn't an aggressive enough driver to feel safe in them.

Posted by: annette on August 17, 2006 9:27 AM



If you think the MGB was obsolescent in 1971, you should have seen it in 1980 when it went out of production. A real horror show, and not in the Alex-and-his-droogies sense either.

Posted by: CGHill on August 17, 2006 7:09 PM



Sigh, I keep reading your car posts hoping I will become a car person the way I mistakenly believe I will become a 'know about wine' person, but I don't think I ever will.....

That Porsche 914 does look good, though, and I can see how you were taken in a bit :)

Posted by: MD on August 19, 2006 1:46 PM






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